from a.s. byatt’s short story, “christ in the house of martha and mary”

September 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

“And she appealed to the painter, should Dolores [an angry young woman who is unhappy that she is unattractive and a servant] not learn to be content, to be patient? Hot tears sprang in Dolores’s eyes. The painter said:

‘By no means. It is not a question of accepting our station in the world as men have ordered it, but of learning not to be careful and troubled. Dolores here has her way to that better part, even as I have, and, like mine, it begins in attention to loaves and fishes. What matters is not that silly girls push her work about their plates with a fork, but that the work is good, that she understands what the wise understand, the nature of garlic and onions, butter and oil, eggs and fish, peppers, aubergines, pumpkins and corn. The cook, as much as the painter, looks into the essence of the creation, not, as I do, in light and on surfaces, but with all the other senses, with taste and smell, and touch, which God also made in us for purposes. You may come at the better part by understanding emulsions, Dolores, by studying freshness and the edges of decay in leaves and flesh, by mixing wine and blood and sugar into sauces, as well as I may, and likely better than fine ladies twisting their pretty necks so that the light may catch their pretty pearls. You are very young, Dolores, and very strong, and very angry. You must learn now, that the important lesson – as long as you have your health – is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist, worrying and yawning. When I paint eggs and fishes and onions, I am painting the godhead – not only because eggs have been taken as an emblem of the Resurrection, as have dormant roots with green shoots, not only because the letters of Christ’s name make up the Greek word for fish, but because the world is full of life and light, and the true crime is not to be interested in it. You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, too, as all skills are. The Church teaches that Mary is the contemplative life, which is higher than Martha’s way, which is the active way. But any painter must question, which is which? And a cook also contemplates mysteries.

‘I don’t know,’ said Dolores, frowning. He tilted his head the other way. Her head was briefly full of images of the skeletons of fishes, of the whirlpool of golden egg-and-oil in the bowl, of the pattern of muscles in the shoulder of a goat. She said, ‘It is nothing, what I know. It is past in a flash. It is cooked and eaten, or it is gone bad and fed to the dogs, or thrown out.’

‘Like life,’ said the painter. ‘We eat and are eaten, and we are very lucky if we reach our three score years and ten, which is less than a flash in the eyes of an angel. The understanding persists, for a time. In your craft and mine.'”

— from “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, by A.S. Byatt

I love this deeply.

Was having a conversation with E. about this — a shortlived exchange, but enjoyable while it lasted. Byatt in this short story writes about characters that could not be farther removed from what it means to be a twentysomething hyphenated-American girl in a time of global uncertainty over terrorist threats, economic unrest, and corporatized states — yet the issues under discussion are 110% relevant to the thoughts that have for the past few months been occupying my frontal lobe. This is in part due to the narrow width of those thoughts — I’m far more concerned with all this talk about “craft” and “passion” and “what it is to live a meaningful life and how does one go about trying to do so” than Germany bailing out yet another sinking rowboat in the EU’s flotilla of bedraggled ships. But I digress.

I LOVE THIS. The story is about centering one’s life around a skill, a passion; of living to the utmost by constantly observing, by constantly being present. — “the important lesson is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist, worrying and yawning.” It is so easy, for day-jobbers, to read articles about X celebrity’s tummy tuck; oogle, as I do, pictures of Y soccer star’s washboard abs; brush up on Internet memes; watch television; read easy books; and otherwise fritter away their time on things of no import. But consumption without engagement is killing. Sure, I’m entertained, and I get a little vicarious thrill when a picture of David Villa comes up and when I look at it it feels like he is consuming me with his eyes. But how does that help me? Is it contributing to my skillset? Is it helping me make the world a better place? — Because that’s what I want to feel, you know. And I will confess this freely while no one is looking, or at least no one that I know. That in the end my existence, its eyeblink brevity, has in some way or other altered the sum of human suffering for the better. Will this be through my future legal work? Or through the stories that I spend hours a day on crafting, and that will likely never be read and enjoyed by more than a dozen acquaintances and friends? Both?

Striking a balance between the active and contemplative life is another topic that’s been on my mind recently. Byatt suggests that the two intermix, but I can’t quite buy that; for me, there is a distinct difference between doing and recording, immersing into a stream of lived sensation and pulling out far enough to be able to note, clinically, to oneself, “these lights are like such and such, this jam, knife-swiped on a toasted slice of bread, is freckled with seeds — must scribble on the nearest envelope that comes to hand”. You readers who write, you’ll know it’s hard. But it’s important to do it. As Oscar Wilde said — and this is again quoting from my conversation with E. — all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.

A last point: of course there is a worrying undercurrent of class friction here — anyone who councils patience and contentment and the recourse to inner reservoirs of creativity risks being viewed as, if they haven’t already become, the enforcer of the treacly status quo, where the served reigh supreme. But I don’t think that invalidates his point, which would apply even if Dolores were a pretty, rich lady. Maybe then she’d hate her husband or be plagued by ennui because all that she’s got to do all day is sit around and rearrange the pillows. Then the same attention to craft could enrich her life.


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